For a while it looked like modern horror would be defined by films that delighted in excessive gore and torture, less movies than endurance tests designed to push audiences to the brink (and then comfort them just enough that they’d be back for the sequel the following Halloween). But with a rash of found footage movies that implied more than they ever showed, it seemed that horror was being reclaimed, if not exactly by subtlety, then by the ability to coax fear out of more than just severe violence. This reached its apex last summer with “The Conjuring,” a based-on-a-true-story studio horror movie that earned an R-rating based on how bone-chillingly scary it was. And where there’s a hit, there’s a franchise, especially in the low-cost world of horror, so a little over a year after “The Conjuring” made audiences pee themselves in fright comes “Annabelle,” a prequel/spin-off centered around the original film’s haunted doll.
This new movie opens with footage from “The Conjuring,” a move that, if it doesn’t scream “creative bankruptcy,” then it at least whispers it really loud. It’s that same scene with two young nurses talking about how their doll, named Annabelle, was terrorizing them in their apartment. The movie then flashes back a few years, to the circumstances that created this demon doll. Sadly, the doll’s origin story is frightfully dull; intentionally or not, the entire thing reeks of being a cynical cash-grab of the highest order. Now that’s scary.
Instead of autumnal New England setting of “The Conjuring,” sunny suburban California is the backdrop for “Annabelle.” Young couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton) are expecting their first child and are becoming increasingly nervous about the recent rash of occult-related murders. (Their neighbor’s daughter is said to have joined a hippie commune and they watch news reports about the Manson killings on their television.) One night the couple are in bed and awoken by sounds next door, and pretty soon a man and woman have broken into their house and stabbed the pregnant Mia (the man is shot to death by the police and the woman takes her own life, but not before scrawling some devilish symbol into the wall with her own blood—and yes, this is incredibly similar to the first “Child’s Play“). Mia and John survive and move out of the murder house, but soon spooky things start occurring with more regularity and the couple have to face down the truth: that they’re being terrorized by a demonic doll.
Horror movies being centered around possessed dolls are nothing new—in addition to “Child’s Play,” there’s everything from the underrated Stuart Gordon shocker “Dolls” to the evil clown in “Poltergeist” to the Stephen King-penned episode of “The X-Files” to the insanely popular direct-to-video “Puppet Master” franchise (there have been ten movies). There is something creepy about the static, porcelain faces of dolls and the idea that, when the lights go out, they could move around with sinister intent. But in most of these projects, the dolls themselves are given character and personality; in “Annabelle,” the doll is just an object, one that is carried around by either a ghostly vision of the felled intruder or a jet-black demon that is more than a little reminiscent of a similar creature on the wonderful NBC series “Hannibal.” The doll in “Annabelle” is nothing more than an inanimate object that, through moody lighting and a screeching score by Joseph Bishara, is suggested to have a personality, even if the filmmakers never make it explicitly clear that she actually has the ability to come to life and, say, stab you with a kitchen knife or crack one liners (if only!)
“Annabelle” is humorless and flat, although early in the episode, it’s implied that the movie has more on its mind than just the dramatic slamming of bedroom doors. When the young couple are watching the Manson Family news report, it feels like their anxiety with the supposed Satanic outbreak is mirrored within the home, with Mia feeling isolated and distrustful, sometimes of her own husband. (These feelings obviously intensify as the haunting becomes more regular and intense.) There is also the suggestion, with the young kids next door getting involved in devil worship and the relocation to an apartment building (and the fact that the main character’s name is Mia) that they would do a West Coast spin on “Rosemary’s Baby.” It feels like, initially, that the husband is spending so much time away from home not because he’s a doctor but because he’s having an affair or, even more malevolently, is a member of the same cult that the intruders were a part of. (There’s a brief suggestion that other tenants are part of the cult.) But nope. He’s just a doctor. And she’s just a housewife. And that’s it.
Director John R. Leonetti was the cinematographer on “The Conjuring,” and does his best to stage the suspense set pieces in a convincing manner, sometimes doing entire sequences with a single, languid take. But just as often, he fumbles, seemingly unsure of how to ratchet up the tension when the screenplay he’s working from (by Gary Dauberman) is so paper-thin. Even characters actors like Alfre Woodard, who are used to making a small part seem like a grand exercise, act confused and under-served. The “scary” sequences, too, feel repetitive and poorly paced. In every way this feels less like a spin-off or prequel and more like the kind of direct-to-video rip-offs that are produced by an independent production company in an effort to piggyback on the actual film’s success. While it does nothing to diminish the accomplishment and artistry of “The Conjuring,” it’s also kind of a bummer that one of the very best studio horror movies to come around in a good long while has to be tarnished so quickly by something so cheap and awful. If “subtle” horror movies are going to be this devastatingly boring, maybe it’s time to bring back the buckets of blood. [D]